48 hrs in Doha
“Why are you going to Doha?” was a regular question I received before departing for the Qatari capital. “It’s so dull,” would be an oft-heard statement. To which I’d ask the accuser whether he’d actually been there. “No, but I’ve heard it from loads of people.”
And who are these people? I’d ask. “Just people.” Not the most satisfactory of responses, and certainly no way to judge a city that’s one of the closest places to visit from the UAE.
Not until you’ve actually been somewhere can you comment on its attributes. So wanting to find out for myself what Doha has to offer, I booked a visit over an average weekend. It just so happened it was the same weekend as the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and the WTA Tennis Championships. Maybe I wouldn’t get a typical feeling for the city, but seeing as Qatar is pitching for a growing number of international events — including the 2022 football World Cup (to be decided on December 2) — it would be a window into how the rulers of this city-state hope the country’s future will look as they spend its gas-funded cash reserves on headline-grabbing mega projects and events.
One such project is the new airport, due for completion in 2012, but until then passengers still have to endure the old-school bus trip from jet to terminal, something that automatically gives the impression of arriving in a quiet, undeveloped land. Maybe the naysayers in Dubai were right all along, I thought. After half an hour in an odorous queue at immigration, followed by having to pay QAR100 (Dh100) for an entry visa, my suspicions were elevated further. If you’re keen to attract tourists, don’t bill them to enter the country. It’s understandable for impoverished nations, but that certainly doesn’t apply to Qatar.
Doha is fortunately far from what the naysayers claim. Once the new airport is built it’ll be far more welcoming — even if most passengers are just in transit — but if they took the time to visit the city they’d find a surprisingly modern, growing, urban sprawl that’s bucking the downturn; possibly due to the fact that cold European winters demand gas regardless of their dire economies.
Beyond how the city first appears, there’s also a surprising amount for the weekend traveller to see and do, regardless of whether there’s any international sporting event or Robert De Niro-backed film festival. Souq Wafiq is where to start the tour. It was originally the old Doha souq, but was torn down and replaced with, yes, an old souq, except built with modern materials, fully wired up and ready for the 21st century. It means that Doha residents have an area that’s in part winding alleys of shops selling spices, antiques, fabrics and everything else you’d expect to find in a traditional souq, but connecting those alleys are a couple of wide, open, pedestrian-only streets dotted with modern cafés, restaurants and art galleries. It’s a beautiful development that evokes memories of Morocco, Spain, Lebanon and the Gulf, taking their best bits, but also incorporating some old school elements.
One of these elements would have to be pet shop alley. If you’re ever in the market for an orange dog, blue and pink chicks or a fully mature tortoise, this is where you need to be. Although I can’t condone the painting of animals, they did seem perfectly content in their new shades — not orange, but ‘beige with hints of autumn,’ would be the Vogue way of describing the result. It’s woefully unnecessary, but if you take a step back from any politically correct instinct to demonise the practise, there’s a certain light heartedness to what’s on offer.
For the more serious side of Doha, you need to visit the ultra-modern Diplomatic Area (or central business district) that has spawned a forest of skyscrapers. Property speculation fever that hit Dubai also hit Doha, but development here appears to be somewhat conservative in comparison. They seem to have contained sky-high development to one particular area, but it’s still hard to see where the demand will grow for the extra millions of square feet of office space. Fortunately, that’s of no concern to the weekend visitor, so it was on to see the Culture and Heritage Village that sits to the north side of the city.
About 30 camels were scattered throughout a temporary paddock, standing about 10 feet from each other. It was somewhat baffling until I saw they’d all been chained to the ground to make sure they were spaced out neatly. But the camels were content with the situation, chewing methodically on whatever food was passed their way. Their owners tended to them, scratching their chins and stroking their long necks. On a nearby piece of land Arabian horses were stretching their short legs, being put through their paces by young jockeys. We were in Arabia now; there was no doubting that. This is what tourists often come to the region to see, as long as they’re willing to leave the hotel pool and bar. It was good to see Doha offering the classics.
Further into the Culture and Heritage Village, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) was in full swing — on family day, acrobats performed, kites were being flown and kids dropped dollops of ice cream on the ground that were scooped up by efficient cleaning teams. You can’t help but be impressed by what they’ve created. For starters, it must have cost a fortune. There’s a long, well-maintained corniche, many exhibition halls and the centrepiece, the pièce de résistance, a vast stone amphitheatre that any Greek or Roman visitor would admire as though it were built on the shores of their own Mediterranean nations. Incredibly it wasn’t even being used for the film festival; they’d built a temporary open-air theatre beside it — one that was halfway through a presentation by Special FX professionals showing clips of how the Lord of the Rings films were constructed.
The highlight of the weekend was meant to be watching Robert De Niro attend the festival, but he turned out to be almost incomprehensible, leaving the area itself far exceeding the star on good impressions. And that wasn’t the only surprising thing about the weekend. By the time it came to leaving Doha, I realised that I’d spent 48 hours in a Gulf state without visiting a shopping mall. That makes Doha far from dull. It’s a city that truly exceeded expectations.
Flights to Doha are regular and cheap with www.flydubai.com, which has four flights daily, starting at Dh430 for a round trip. Flight time is one hour.
Where to stay:
La Cigale Hotel is an incredibly sleek, central option that is featured in The Leading Hotels of The World. It is home to the popular Sky View Bar, which has views over the whole city from its outdoor, rooftop location. Rooms are comfortable and fully wired for all your travelling tech. The spa is highly recommended. Try the hot stone massage, but beware that by hot, they mean HOT!
Where to eat:
La Cigale has some superb options, but for a fresh sea breeze try Al Mourjan Restaurant, where you can sit by the water’s edge looking at the brightly lit skyscrapers over the bay.
Best time to visit:
Doha has the same climate as Dubai, so visit between November and April if possible. Try to find a headlining event to coincide with your trip — there’s plenty to choose from, and a lot more coming.
FIRST PRINTED IN 2010